James Lasdun

My old friend Chris, who works for Channel Five, has invited me to go with him to Las Vegas, where he is attending the Natpe TV marketing convention. We’re staying at the Mirage, a tropical-themed hotel with its own rainforest and volcano on the main Vegas Strip. The long back wall of the lobby is a coral reef aquarium with sharks, moray eels and clownfish. To get to your room you have first to pass through the casino, itself an aquarium-like space, dimly lit, with reefs of gleaming slot machines, card tables arrayed like sea fans, and some extremely strange creatures drifting about.

Upstairs Chris runs through our schedule: meetings, a trip to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. He’s the ideal travel companion, a combination of the Falstaffian and the Napoleonic, and since our first trip together, aged 14, I’ve learned to leave everything in his hands. ‘Ready to go?’ he asks, throwing on a jacket over his Hawaiian shirt. I follow him out into the sunshine.

The convention is being held in the nearby Venetian. Escalators carry us from the street to a bridge over the seven-lane Las Vegas Strip. From the upper level we can see most of the newer hotels, each a huge Y-shaped block with extravagantly themed ornamentation: Italianate scrolls for the Bellagio, jutting gold columns on Caesar’s Palace, garret roofs for the Paris. All have carnival props and follies out front: water garden, Coliseum, Eiffel Tower. My image of Vegas, based on old Mafia movies and Times Square, is out of date. This part at least seems more haughtily grandiose than seedy, and for all its old-world pastiching, more futuristic than nostalgic. The sidewalks are clean, the affluent-looking crowds flowing over them all plugged into cellphones or iPods, the buildings eerily gleaming. Everywhere there are monumental constructions of a sort I have never seen before: tall towers of steel columns bearing multiple storeys of gigantic video walls advertising shows, and capped by vast neoclassical pediments. They and the buildings themselves are rigged with speakers that murmur intimately to you as you pass, elaborating on their attractions. You half expect them to greet you by name.

At the Venetian we follow the bright blue canal under the Doge’s Palace façade and enter the gilt and marble lobby. This leads into another casino (you can’t go anywhere here without being funnelled through a casino). We’ve agreed not to gamble till later, but as we pass a set of slots – the Flaming Sevens – pulsating in luminous gold and scarlet, Chris’s stride slows. ‘Just a moment,’ he says, ‘I’m getting a sort of tingling feeling . . .’ He puts a $100 bill into the machine and starts hitting the play button. In a matter of seconds he wins $260. A moment later he wins another $80. We go on into the convention hall in a state of slightly unreal elation.

Along with Cannes, this is TV’s biggest sales event, and the place is teeming. Men mostly, with silk suits, cigars, shaved heads and elaborate underlip topiary. Chris has the blue ID card of a buyer, which acts as a powerful magnet. Before we’ve even cleared security, two producers have accosted him, one trying to sell him a programme on the ‘Glutton Bowl’, an eating Olympics, the other touting a series on real-life psychic detectives. Chris listens politely and exchanges cards. ‘Too niche for us,’ he says to me quietly as we move on. He explains his mission: having grown to its natural capacity, Channel Five is now focusing on the ‘quality’ of its audience from the point of view of advertisers. This means reaching for younger, richer viewers, which in turn means more of what he calls ‘factual entertainment’ shows.

Our first meeting is with the creator of Naked News, in which newscasters slowly strip as they read the news. The format has turned out to be a big success, with imitations appearing all over the world. ‘Everybody wants to see naked women reading the news,’ the producer tells us with uncomplicated candour. ‘Unlike the competition, our girls read well and they just strip – no wriggling or touching themselves. It’s tasteful.’ Even so the show itself is a little too raunchy for Channel Five, and instead Chris wants to make an ‘observational documentary’ about the making of it. For this he needs the producer’s co-operation, which the man is all too happy to give. While they discuss terms I look at stills from the company’s other shows: a squirrel on water-skis, a woman swallowing an octopus . . . I live with my family up a mountain, far from other people, and we don’t have a TV. All this is somewhat strange to me.

We’re in and out of meetings for the next several hours. At the Canadian Broadcasting Company, a nervous guy pinching his fingers with a crocodile clip offers us a big-budget documentary on the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, complete with full-dress re-enactments and a subplot involving Dr Crippen. Chris says guardedly that he’ll mention it to his head of history. But sunken ships, along with Nazi treasure hunts and true-crime series, are for low-income old folks, not free-spending young adults. The guy seems to absorb this. Shoving all four fingers into the spring clip, he offers Chris a show about famous photographers shooting erotic pictures: ‘Tastefully done. But edgy. Definitely edgy.’ ‘Send us a tape,’ Chris says.

Over lunch I decide to broach a subject I have been wanting to raise for some time: namely whether Chris has any qualms about what he does for a living. It’s a delicate subject, even between old friends, but it turns out that Chris is eager to discuss it. He talks about his first job, at LBC Radio in 1979, where he discovered the pleasures of bucking the prevailing ‘conservative liberal middle-class culture’. He describes the ‘narcotic’ gratification – as he progressed to television – of moving and shaking, poaching, getting scoops, breaking taboos, handling the logistics of news-gathering in Third World countries, booking celebrities (I remember him coming over to sign up Monica Lewinsky: I gave him a lift and my car broke down on the way to New York, but within minutes he had hired a passing driver to take him into the city for the meeting). His animus against middle-class culture remains strong, if a little mysterious even to himself. But at the same time he confesses to having had a recent change of heart about the effects of its opposite, and suggests that a relentless TV diet of sex and celebrity-gazing may bring about a ‘coarsening of the soul’. He’s not about to commission a remake of Civilisation, but his relish for the less salubrious side of his work is no longer what it was.

Meanwhile, more meetings. Would we care for a screener of Sex Drives: The Bare Lowdown? How about Sex in the Kitchen, ‘where the lines between food and sex completely disappear’? Or Hitched, a wedding series featuring lesbian weddings, biker weddings, shotgun weddings? Or a documentary on how to strip? ‘Very steamy,’ the producer assures us. Perhaps it is just the after-effect of our conversation, but I seem to detect something faintly melancholy in Chris’s bearing as he listens to the pitches. A distinguished looking man in his sixties wants to sell us Envy, a ‘non-stop celebration of hot women, cool diversions and exotic locations’. Failing that, would we be interested in a Hell’s Angels couple who train psychologically disturbed rottweilers with a monkey and a parrot? Maybe . . . A few booths along, Chris’s eye is caught by a screen showing a woman attempting to rope an alligator. A hunting and cooking show, the exhibitor explains: the women hunt and then the chef cooks what they’ve caught. He offers us a piece of alligator jerky.

Ebb-tide in the casino; the slow hour before dinner. Roulette wheels zipped up in black leather coverings, cultic-looking, or like strange S&M toys. At a quiet blackjack table with a sign saying ‘$1000 dollar minimum stake’, a solitary player takes a cigarette break, head sunk, eyes closed, while the dealer stands above him with a gentle, ministering air. Passing the Flaming Sevens, Chris has another ‘tingling feeling’. I wait at the next machine while he loses his morning’s winnings. These slots apparently took over the casinos a few years ago like an invasive species, all but crowding out the old gaming tables. They sit there, rows and rows of them, bleeping and blinking like baby robots in a vast nursery. Mostly it is women playing them, women of a certain age, one hand splayed to the side with a burning cigarette, the other patiently hitting the play button. Occasionally, after a great deal of coaxing, the surly child will reward them with a sudden gush of love, and they try not to look too pleased. I’m keeping my bankroll intact until I have worked up the nerve to play blackjack. But as I wait there primly, an odd-looking man in purple gloves shuffles down our row, stops dead at my machine, points at it and says in a thick Russian accent: ‘That one is about to win big.’ I’m more susceptible to this kind of thing than I like to admit. I feed a twenty into its duckbill. Twenty hits, twenty seconds, and it’s gone. A weird, sterile, nothing feeling, as though you’ve just been pummelled by some force that has vanished before you can figure out what it was.

Outside the neon is glowing in the dusk: gorgeous wheeling lilacs and ambers, the crystal colours of the great video-wall towers. One wall alternates an ad for an art exhibition with a promotion for an adult cabaret at Bally’s Hotel – ‘Monet to Rothko’ dissolving into ‘Enjoy the costumes, or lack thereof!’ Briefly, after the corporations took over from the Mafia, there was an attempt to turn Vegas into a ‘family destination’. The attempt failed, and now the corporations have discovered they have it in them after all to produce and package sex like anything else (‘edgy’ seems to be the magically legitimising word), and do so with their characteristic blunt efficiency. Everything yields: Cirque du Soleil, a byword among East Coasters for enlightened children’s entertainment, has developed a new act specially for Vegas: Zumanity, a topless acrobatic show. A taxi advertises ‘Naked girls direct to your room. No obligation.’ There is no furtiveness or defensive cheekiness. The culture of the dirty little secret has dispensed with the dirty little wink that used to accomplish it. Dour Mexican families line the Strip, thrusting call-girl flyers in your face with an aggressive snap. As we pass a casino-bar, it seems to murmur: ‘We have the loosest sluts.’ I’ve misheard sluts for ‘slots’, but as Chekhov wrote of Monte Carlo: ‘The whole tone is prostitutional; the palm trees, it seems, are prostitutes, and the chickens are prostitutes.’ The prostitutes, however, are apparently in many cases slaves: teenagers lured from Eastern Europe with the promise of nannying jobs, beaten and gang-raped into submission, then sold to pimping enterprises in American cities. Where the business of these outfits shades into that of the hotel corporations is anyone’s guess.

None of this comes as a great surprise. What does surprise me is the scale of things. The astounding crowds milling everywhere; the vastness of the twenty-odd main hotels, each with up to five thousand beds to fill every night (and still vaster ones are being built). Tourists and conventioneers – this is the convention capital of the States – arrive daily by the hundred thousand, and it’s also the fastest growing city in the country, with four thousand people moving here every month. From my mountain seclusion it’s easy enough to dismiss the whole place as a freak show, a piece of special-case Americana, but here on the ground the reality is so dense and large and triumphantly assertive it makes everything else seem the deviation. Any basis you may have thought you had for opposing it feels suddenly puny and absurd. I remember my father, a purist in matters of architectural taste, refusing to take us to the faux-Italian fishing village of Portmeirion in Wales when we were staying nearby one summer, on anti-kitsch grounds. In those days such battles felt important to fight, even winnable. In your dreams! the buildings here seem to scoff. You reach for something stronger than aesthetics: Huizinga’s ‘puerilism’, Kierkegaard’s ‘flatulent and unfruitful knowledge’. But what could possibly make a dent in this three-mile glass and marble rictus? You must learn to love it.

Only from the sky does its vulnerability appear. The trip to the Grand Canyon is six hours each way by coach, but it turns out we are going by helicopter. The little six-seater Chris has booked us onto rises above the airport, cruises down the Strip, then sheers off eastward over the ring of mountains surrounding the city. Abruptly the larger scheme of things manifests itself: the Nevada desert, a roiling jaggedness stretching to the horizon in every direction. You feel at once its violent hostility to anything human, and as the hotels, motels and tract-houses of the city dwindle behind us they seem for a moment almost touchingly frail; just a blink or shudder away from non-existence.

We fly low, over the Valley of Colours, the Valley of Fire, hugging the contours missile-style. Lake Mead, where the Colorado river meets the Hoover Dam, is big and blue, but the longest drought on record has left a seventy-foot tub-ring around the shore. We swoop down to look at the dam (not too close: we don’t want to trigger its post-9/11 terrorist defences), then surge back up over the high country. In case our emotions need boosting, our pilot pipes music from old westerns into our headsets. He points out Mormon trails; a settlement on a bleak plateau for people in witness-protection programmes. As the earth splits open below us, the music changes to the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. We drop right down into the canyon, smirking at the coaches parked at the top, and land near the bottom. Champagne and cheese doodles are served. We couldn’t be any more ‘here’ than down here under the towering striated cliffs, yet even as we zoom off again I can feel the reality of the place slipping out of my grasp. I find myself half envying those toiling coach parties: our dreamlike ease in getting here seems to have limited its purchase on memory. By the time we’re back, it’s as if we never went.

We’ve heard that the old downtown area around the Golden Nugget still has some of the pre-corporate tacky Vegas atmosphere left. Tables with no lower or upper limits, where high-rolling ‘whales’ and lambs like us can mingle. It seems the right place to begin our gambling careers. We take a taxi down to Fremont Street. Yes: a very different atmosphere from the Strip – broken bulbs in the neon fixtures, women in tatty fur coats, men with teeth missing. But the noisy, brassy clientele in the Golden Nugget clearly have money to spend. ‘America’s opulent peasantry’, as someone put it. The bare-thighed cocktail waitresses are mostly in their sixties. The words ‘There’s no limit to what we’re up to’ scroll across the slots, and it’s impossible to tell whether the sinisterness is intended. Almost every machine has a human attached to it, each pair a coupling with its own peculiar aura: confessional, couch, bathroom, torture chamber . . . Here are Chris’s Flaming Sevens. Clunk clunk clunk, and there goes the price of an Agnès B jacket or a ‘74 La Lagune. There are undoubtedly people who come here in the firm hope of winning money, but I’m beginning to suspect that most people come in order to lose, to enjoy the unique and perverse experience of a safe and sanctioned mugging.

The low-stakes blackjack tables are all full. Just as well, it turns out: after watching for a moment we realise we don’t know how to play. We’d thought it was the same as vingt-et-un but it isn’t: among other things both your cards are dealt face up, while the dealer has one facing down, eliminating the possibility (and pleasure) of bluffing your hand. Not wanting to learn the ropes at a $100 minimum stakes game, we go to a roulette table instead. I win a modest little pot after three or four spins, just betting on red each time. The croupier seems genuinely pleased for me. I detect a Midlands accent. ‘English?’ I ask. ‘Used to be. You too, right?’ I laugh, feel lucky, bet half my winnings on black; I lose. ‘Aw,’ the croupier says, and the way she rakes my chips makes it seem an act of tenderness. I could walk away while I’m still ahead, but I’d feel a complete heel. Within a few minutes I’ve lost the entire stash I was saving for blackjack. But people do win: as we leave I see a man hit the jackpot at a slot. The chips come tumbling out, overflowing the chrome basin and falling onto the floor. He looks utterly bewildered, fumbling with his hearing-aid while he tries to scoop them up.

A cable TV executive has invited us to dine with him at a restaurant in the MGM Grand. Dinner is surf ‘n’ turf, Vegas-style: kobe beef and six-pound lobster. Our host asks about our trip to the Grand Canyon. With a vague idea of singing for my supper I begin to describe the dreamlike elusiveness of the experience. His attention wanders. He tries to talk us into going to a striptease. A friend of his joins us, a Greek high-roller who has been fully ‘comped’ by the casino: free room, free food and drink, fast-track seating at the crowded all-you-can-eat buffets. He gives us a rundown of the basic rules of blackjack: when to stick, when to split, when to double down. He suggests practising first on a machine, and we take his advice, stopping at an ATM after dinner and seating ourselves at a blackjack slot. Following his rules strictly, I manage to get a few dollars ahead after forty minutes. It’s worth it just for the unexpected pleasure of seeing an automaton deal itself a lousy hand, but I feel ready to move on to the real thing.

We find a low-stakes table with a couple of empty seats. The dealer is another friendly woman. Everyone’s friendly, of course. This is a tip economy, and the people servicing the tourist industry have brought the art of friendliness to a high level, making detailed miniature dramas of ingratiation out of the briefest encounter (or of subtle contempt if you don’t deliver). But nice as she is, she runs the games at a phenomenal speed, and meanwhile there is the continual distraction of the cocktail waitresses, the roving-eyed pit bosses, the whooping from the noisy craps games across the aisle, the stares of onlookers, and I quickly become flustered, muddling the rules, doubling down even when the dealer courteously expresses surprise and gives me a chance to rethink. At one point I commit the gaffe of trying to put a $20 bill in the dealer’s hand to buy more chips. She motions me to put the bill on the table, then picks it up: ‘You are not allowed to touch me,’ she explains with polite firmness. It is all over very quickly. But it feels all right somehow, like some brief, bittersweet affair from which you come out reeling but know you are going to recover and look back on fondly.

The stores are still open when we leave. We come to the entrance of the Forum, a Roman-themed mall famous for the fact that people spend seven times more in it than they do at other malls. After a long trek to the far end, we understand why this may be so: there is no exit. You have to march all the way back past the shops again. Outside Bulgari, a tall, overweight man carrying a dozen shopping bags stumbles and crashes to the ground. A crowd gathers. ‘Heart attack,’ someone mutters. He lies there blinking, still holding onto his bags. Security men arrive in a golf cart. We wander on, watch the Mirage volcano explode, the Treasure Island pirate ship get sunk with all hands by cannon fire from a crew of enemy sirens in wet T-shirts, on into the Bellagio to see the fountain display from the terrace bar. We’re here now, and the fountains are playing over the mist of dry ice. My peach Bellini tastes like the smell of bathroom deodorant, but the lit columns of water soar to a stupendous height in synchronised spouts, then intertwine like the necks of gigantic amorous swans. And I yield up my gasp of amazement like everyone else.